Archive for the ‘Action’ Category

It was spring 2010 and there I was sat on the edge of my couch shouting excitingly at the television. I was gripped in the frenzied concentration and exacerbated stick wiggling that can only come from a game such as Fifa. Playing over Xbox live with a good friend (in this case Gavin Bartlett – Associate Art Director at Playground Games) and with headphones is a particularly heady combination guaranteed to cause maximum competitive stress and ridicule for the loser; great fun.

In the middle of a particularly hard fought game Gavin suddenly paused play. I glanced down and noticed that I was crushing my controller with all the ferocity of a crazy person. The intensity of the game had been so high that it wasn’t until it was interrupted that I saw how caught up I had become. It was this moment that was to become the catalyst for a fascinating journey into measuring intensity of player experience. In the words of the fresh prince – this is a story all about how my life got flipped turned upside down…by biometrics.

Reflecting back on this mid-game moment it had got me thinking about whether the intensity of a gaming experience could be measured by how hard a player gripped the controller. The first thing to ascertain was whether I was a freak or not, was this phenomenon just unique to me? Turns out that thankfully it wasn’t, enough people at the studio (at the time – Bizarre Creations) shared the same experience. High intensity, it seemed, equalled feverish grip.

I explained my theory to a close friend (James Thompson) who is an engineer by trade. I asked him if he knew of a sensor that measured pressure on an object. His first thought was a strain gauge. The problem, on further investigation, was that this was more suitable for measuring the deformity of an object, a shearing or twisting force. This wasn’t what we wanted, what we needed was more a measure of how hard the controller was being squeezed, in effect the tightness of the grip. On further investigation we found another sensor called a ‘Force Sensitive Resistor’ or FSR for short. The FSR did exactly what we needed by measuring direct force or pressure on the sensor. To my great delight it also turned out to be pretty cheap and even better it could be bought in a small enough size to fit on a 360 pad, what a result! A cunning plan had begun to form in my head!

Now not being much of an electronics man I needed a solution where I could visualise the data from the FSR sensor. This came in the form of the wonderful Arduino board; a DIY electronic prototyping platform that even total amateurs like me can use. Not only could I buy an Arduino board but I could also buy a pack of FSR’s and a bunch of other wires and other necessary paraphernalia from a wonderful specialist electronic website in the UK called Oomlout. These guys are also particularly awesome because they provide, free of charge, very well written step by step printed tutorials with each sensor that tells you how to get the sensors hooked up and working on the Arduino board. The FSR tutorial rig hooked up with an LED that would get brighter the more pressure that was applied to the sensor. This video was the result:

I felt like a kid again. There was something magical about playing with electronics again; it brought back memories of playing with those Lego motors as a kid. Having something tangible in your hands that you can fiddle and experiment with brings a certain joy that is lost on screen I think. I guess I could have stopped there, but I was a little bit hooked by this point. I’d become caught up in the excitement of rediscovering the simple joys of messing around with toys and electronics. I asked myself, how could I take this to the next level? How can I measure the force of player grip via more than a blinking LED!

Retro Lego Motor

The answer came as a result of some feverish googling. As a non-coder I’ve become somewhat of an expert in finding snippets of web-code on random websites and kind of hamming it into things until it eventually works through trial and error.  It’s a style I’ve honed over many years and it wasn’t to disappoint me this time around either! I found this brilliant website: www.ladyada.net. This page gave me a snippet of script that could be run with the Arduino SDK that measured the actual Newton force being output second to second by the sensor. Unbelievable, I guess this sense of euphoria would have been even further pronounced had I coded all this entirely by myself, but hey, progress was being made and that was more important!

What this new data output had provided was a means for me to sell the concept to my colleagues at Bizarre. If I had this Newton force data outputting in real-time from the FSR surely this could be visualised with a line graph? If recorded alongside someone playing our current games (at the time – Blur and James Bond: Bloodstone) we could determine the game-play intensity felt by the player when playing our games. This, I felt, would be really useful because at the time we had excellent resources gathering quantitative data and game metrics providing qualitative data but this would provide an extra dimension.

So I jury-rigged the FSR to a 360 controller and the Arduino to my netbook with it running the Newton Force script in the SDK. I have to say, it all looked pretty awesome in its nerdiness:

Jury-rigged FSR to Xbox 360 controller

It drew a small crowd when I showed the FSR in action. I don’t think many game developers can resist mad experiments so it was a successful demonstration. Everybody was pretty excited at the potential and interested in exactly how useful the data could be. We discussed other potential ways of visualising the data, Chris Pickford (now super developer at Jagex) and Michael Evans (our Tableau man) were convinced we could run the data through Tableau and get some really interesting overlays on our maps. So the next step was some further pillaging of clever coder brains. Two were to become my absolute heroes – tools programmers Ken Macleod and Jamie Hales – Jamie for joining me on this mini-project and Ken as his manager for giving him time in his schedule to do so!

Jamie was quick to write an application that communicated with the FSR. He connected to the Arduino via a COM serial connection and exposed variables in a debug interface that allowed tweaking of the sensitivity values. This allowed them to be placed in a range that was attuned to a natural gripping of the pad. Jamie’s program then communicated this data via a TCP/IP connection to the game, overlaying a graph showing the current sensor input value in a vertical bar, and a graph showing the input history for the last X seconds. The game then used its logging system to log the sensor values in a database as a per-frame and per-second average. This was logged alongside other game data such as health, position etc and allowed visualisations showing the mapping areas where people were gripping the pad the hardest.

Being able to tweak the sensitivity of the data proved to be critical. It was much more manageable in this more reasonable range rather than spiking so drastically second to second. By this time Mike had set up Tableau ready to take the data and visualise it. The harder the player squeezed the pad larger circles would be drawn along with a deeper shade of red. Because we were getting second to second data from the sensor a happy bi-product emerged where we could see the player’s path through the level. Of course what we were capturing from the player was very much open to interpretation as to exactly what emotion/s we were capturing by the player squeezing the pad. But intriguingly what we were getting through from the map overlays appeared to match up with where we expected the intense player stress to be; fire-fights, tricky track sections on racing levels. Not only that but we were getting granularity in the data, seeing a build up in stress levels and a come down from events. What we appeared to be getting was an emotional trail through the level. This was incredibly useful to see if you were aligned with your design requirements for the level regarding pacing and beats. Here is an example of one of the images we generated, click the links to see further hi-res examples:

Dam Entry Level with FSR positions

Image 1 – Dam Entry

Image 2 – Mercenary Camp

Image 3 – Dam Finale

Image 4 – Refinery Escape

Image 5 – Monaco Casino

Image 6 – Istanbul Ruins

Image 7 – Istanbul Driving

For me this was a fantastic conclusion from where I had been sitting on the couch a few months before. It was a great feeling taking a spark of an idea and running with it to fruition. Not only this but working together with the people that got wrapped up in the journey along the way made it immensely satisfying. Our industry is full of passionate, very clever people who love little experiments like this one. So if you’ve ever held back on an idea before, I encourage you to run with it next time and see where it takes you!

So you may be wondering what became of the project? Well I’m sure some of you may be aware of this technique popping up in other peoples list of biometrics techniques. Hell there may have been even before I did this experiment back in early 2010. I certainly couldn’t find any at the time but on looking recently I’ve found examples like this presentation from early 2009:

http://www.slideshare.net/acagamic/next-generation-testing-biometric-analysis-of-player-experience

Right there on slide 25 at the bottom of the page I noticed pressure sensor. So I think I was very likely beaten to the punch. Not only that but the technique certainly has its flaws too, people hold pads in different ways, certain groups of people might not even react to pressure by tensing up. As with all data gathering this would need to be combined with other biometric techniques to corroborate perceived trends.

I took my findings to someone who I thought may be interested in the project; Graham McAllister over at Vertical Slice. They are experts in measuring player experience and use biometrics extensively. He was interested to hear about the project and we remain in contact now. This is a good point to end this story on because it demonstrates my final point. I wouldn’t say I’ve got anything materially out of this project; sadly the whole rig now sits in a plastic bag in my wardrobe! But what I did gain from it was huge when it came to relationships with people. This project brought people together and what is greater than that? I established new relationships, cemented current ones and learnt the power of positive energy and perseverance; people naturally gravitate to these things. It’s funny how far an idea can take you if you follow it through and I look back on this mini-side-project with great fondness. I hope you enjoyed reading about it.

Announcing Hogrocket

Posted by pcollier under Action, Creativity, General, Work

Hogrocket Logo

For a very special reason I’m taking a break from my traditional design orientated posts today. Today I am pleased to announce the launch of my very own company: Hogrocket. We are an indie game development studio focused on mobile, social and connected platforms. I’ve founded the company with Stephen Cakebread and Ben Ward who are two ex-colleagues from my former employer Bizarre Creations. Stephen is best known as the creator of the Geometry Wars franchise and Ben primarily for being the awesome guy who helped build community at Bizarre.

Forming Hogrocket is a big deal for me; I’ve always wanted to run my own company. To be able to combine this with my passion for design is a prospect I’m relishing. Don’t get me wrong it’s also very scary; going from a regular wage to surviving off your wits alone is daunting. But in some ways this is also the point, this is a challenge that I could not live with myself for not attempting.   I’m also incredibly lucky to be in a position where I’ve found two super talented people (and hopefully others soon too) to go on this journey with. That’s not something to be under estimated. Quite often however much you want to set up a company the timing isn’t right or the team isn’t there. Finding people who have the same risk profile and similar aspirations is a very specific ask. Suffice to say I’m excited about the future and already enjoying the creative freedom and liberations of working in a small, dynamic team.

The game development industry is in a very interesting state of flux right now. This is acutely apparent in the UK; mainstream game development here has been utterly devastated. This is through a combination of advantageous tax relief programs in Canada causing brain-drain in the UK and traditional large publishers in a flight to the safety of their established, biggest selling brands. This would have been a worrying death knell for innovation and creativity in our industry but thankfully a brave new world of game development is occurring at the other end of spectrum. From the fragmented remains of large scale studio closures small teams of indie developers everywhere are springing up. This is occurring because the barriers to entry are being removed, suddenly there are no gatekeepers. It is possible to direct sell to people online and multiple business models to do it. Additionally, say what you like about developing for Apple iOS devices (discoverability etc) but now there is the opportunity to make smaller games for low development costs and make a living. This state of play simply hasn’t existed in the industry for decades. So joining the indie ranks with Hogrocket is something that, as a creative, I feel an incredibly liberating prospect. Hopefully the adventure won’t end up simply liberating my bank account of cash!

So please join the community we will be building at Hogrocket, I look forward to talking to you and sharing our progress.

Rhythm

Posted by pcollier under Action, Emotion, Immersion

Kodo - Japanese Drums

Rhythm is a very primal thing. Right from the very first moment of our existence it is there, our own heartbeat offset against the comforting beat of our mother’s. So to design games without considering rhythm can only be detrimental to your cause. If you want to tap into merriment of the soul then beat should be a fundamental part of player experience.

When I talk about rhythm in game design I’m primarily referring to the players actions. Music is an obvious provider of rhythm, but in an active not passive medium it should only really be an enhancer (unless of course it is part of the game-play! i.e. Guitar Hero). In effect player input provides a beat and the quality of the game determines its suitability as well as the sense of connection the player feels with the experience. You can start to see why relying on music alone to give a sense of rhythm is a hallmark of weak game design.

The best games have a tangible sense of ebb and flow that imitate the natural cycles present everywhere in life. We’re very adept as humans at detecting things that aren’t quite right or broken. Things that are un-tuned or disjointed upset our natural balance. So we naturally gravitate toward things that are harmonious. Especially in this modern age with all its distractions we are calmed and excited by rhythm and the recognition of patterns and beats. They are comforting and give us a sense of control. This sense of control and of tapping into the heart of the game is therefore a critical sensation that you must get the player feeling.

The ease at which player actions fit into the rhythm of a game will affect their enjoyment. It is so important that player actions are not a disruptive force. They should be in-tune and in natural harmony with the game systems. Effectively the player should be the heartbeat of the game, the source of life that makes the system work. The player should have a very tangible grasp of how their input is affecting the game. In game design terms this desirable sense of ‘oneness’ with the game is a direct result of the player feeling an integral part of the experience and certainly not passive or secondary to it.

Empowering the player with rhythm is a massively useful tool in your arsenal as a game designer. You are directly responsible for how the player engages with your game and therefore the connection they feel with it. Creating that sense of wonderment from players really feeling they are bringing life to your game is something special. Rhythm, beat, ebb and flow are universal and essential to the very essence of life. As a game designer you should be considering them with every mechanic you implement.

one wheel motorcycle

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” – Voltaire (1694-1778)

The best designers I know are good because they like to get their hands dirty. They are not afraid to try something out to see if it works. They have a healthy attitude toward prototyping. Bad design is thinking you have all the answers and therefore no need for questions.

You know that person in your life who is always the first to say ‘That’ll never work’, well next time they do give them a slap. What’s frustrating is that quite often these people can be extremely intelligent and highly convincing in their arguments as to why you needn’t go further with an idea. And you know what, 90% of the time they may very well be right…on the original point. But you know what is insanely criminal in any kind of design? It’s not allowing exploration, often ideas are the genesis for fantastic and unexpected revelations further down the line. Prototyping is so intertwined with creative thinking that to stunt an idea at its source can severely limit the natural design process. Innovative thought can only occur from action, never inaction. So test out an idea and see what tumbles out, the naysayers might be surprised as to what actually does turn out to work.

Now going back to the traits of the best designers… they will without doubt always have confidence. But not cocky overly assured confidence, true and honest understated confidence. They are open to being wrong and indeed relish the prospect as an opportunity to learn. Being wrong broadens their outlook and opens doors. But on the other hand an unwillingness to be wrong can bring those guilty ultimately to ruin. One path leads to exponential growth in wisdom and experience. The other a linear and narrowing path saddled with a deepening propensity for close mindedness. The moral of the story being; prototype, or be prepared for your final designs to fail a lot more. How is that for irony?

Pieter Bruegel (The Elder) - The Seven Deadly Sins

I hate procrastination. It is the product of the weakest parts of our minds, yet a very strong force. It does its nasty deed in the short and long term and often we do it without even realising. It comes in many different forms, unique to each of us. You might even be doing it now!

What is procrastination? I think of it as anything which prevents us from doing the work that needs to be done. Nothing of value comes for free; we need to put effort in to get the returns. The problem is that the work is often hard and taxing. The part of our mind which concocts acts of procrastination feeds off this prospect.

I clean and tidy when avoiding work. I tell myself “clean and tidy means an unmuddled mind”. To be fair, it’s probably a little bit true, but in my heart of hearts it’s about me shirking from the real work. Let’s face it the world is never going to write “Had a tidy house” on your gravestone. It takes great physical and mental effort to achieve clarity of thought.  But here is the rub, somewhat perversely, it takes very little effort for your mind to concoct clever sabotage when facing exertion.

How to deal with this menace then?  Well self-awareness is a big factor here; you need to recognise the resistance and your acts of procrastination. How many times have you put off going to the gym but once there loved the exercise? Or once you sit down and focus on something literally felt the surge of mental energy run through your body? All it takes is for you to recognise the insidious Gollum like creature sitting inside your head. He craves the act of doing ‘precious’ sweet nothing. But he must be respected for he is cunning and tricksy, wielding procrastination as his greatest spell of all. He’ll try everything to subvert you from doing the work, but banish him you must. All it takes is seeing him for what he really is.

Here are some of my practical tips as a veteran of many battles with the ‘p’ word:

  • Remove yourself from as many distractions as possible (even if it means closing the door to the cat). Distractions are like Piranhas, they’ll keep eating away at you, specifically your will to work.
  • Nike were right; ‘Just do it’. Plonk yourself down and start working. I stared at this notepad for half an hour and faced off my usual nemesis when it comes to writing these articles, that being the rationale “I can’t write the article, I haven’t had the inspiration yet”. Its poppycock, I know it as the voice of my own personal Gollum. So what do I do, I just start writing. That’ll teach the little f*cker.
  • Recognising procrastination is the hardest part. The only way to succeed is to be honest with yourself. Seeing the enemy will help you fight it. It’s one of those weird things where you can catch yourself doing it, sometimes so ingenious that it’ll make me laugh.

We are all guilty of procrastination so no need to feel too bad about it. But I do liken it to the 8th DEADLY SIN, just so you know. Treat it like a game, a battle to outwit yourself, to overcome the cunning schemes of your own Gollum. Good luck fighting the little blighter!

The Evangelist

Posted by pcollier under Action, Discovery, Emotion

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of action. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom rally on August 28, 1963.

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing.  Action always generates inspiration.  Inspiration seldom generates action.” – Frank Tibolt

For a long time I’ve held the assumption that it is ideas that change things. I was wrong, people change things. Ideas are cheap, without action they have little value. It’s easy to romanticise the notion of ideas, but let’s get real. It’s the execution of an idea that people can then experience for themselves and make it their own that matters.

But before all of us designers start slitting our wrists and lamenting the very point of our existence let’s hold our horses. We do have a role to play. An architect of change needs to understand people. He/she needs to have emotional intelligence. To actualise an idea you need to be able to communicate, motivate and collaborate with others to take action. Designers need to be evangelists; their power is to create movement, to generate energy, to galvanize people behind their cause and to listen, not just talk.

Every form of design work is a pitch, its clarity and a declaration of purpose that sells on the worth of making whatever it is into something real. Any designer worth his/her salt has people that believe in them and their ideas. But the thing with ideas is that they never come fully formed. Being in a position to hold the belief of a team through the refinement, prototyping and testing of your design is crucial. However without belief and ultimately without trust you are dead in the water.

So let’s stop perpetuating the status quo and instead choose to change the world and innovate on whatever scale we can affect. Let’s forget mediocrity, ego and meeting after meeting. Let’s do something that has meaning, value and truth of purpose…now that feels better.